Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

6. The Trotskyist movement in Germany

WE HAVE seen the brilliance of Trotsky’s writings on Germany, how clear his analysis, and how magnificent the strategy and tactics he put forward for the struggle against Fascism. But who was there in Germany to propagate Trotsky’s ideas? This is the theme of the present chapter. As we shall see, tragically, there was a gaping abyss between Trotsky’s grand ideas, and the actual means, the personnel, to carry out these ideas. In no way did this chasm separating ends and means belittle the significance of Trotsky’s effort to bridge the gap. Prometheus chained is no less heroic for the failure of his effort to break the chain.

As Germany was the key to the international situation, building a Bolshevik-Leninist opposition organisation in Germany was the most urgent task facing Trotsky after he was exiled to Turkey. He had to start from a very weak position. Unlike France, where for a long time opposition groups sympathetic to Trotsky had existed, such as that of Alfred Rosmer and Boris Souvarine, or in Spain with Andrés Nin, in Germany there was for a long time nothing similar. Instead there was the largest and most influential Communist Party in the world outside the USSR.

In addition there existed two quite significant opposition organisations, with a relatively large membership, with influence in sections of the working class, and led by people who were very well known as former leaders of the KPD. These were the Bukharinist Right Opposition KPO led by Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, and the Zinovievist German Left led by Ruth Fischer and Arkady Maslow. Both opposition organisations had their genesis in the failed revolution of October 1923. In addition, to crowd the field, a new party of some size rose in 1931 – the Sotzialistische Arbeiterpartei (SAP, the Socialist Workers’ Party). Very little space was left for the Trotskyists.

The Right Opposition: the KPO

FOLLOWING THE removal by Stalin of Bukharin from the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, steps were taken to remove his supporters in the German Communist Party. Heinrich Brandler, who led the KPD between 1921 and 1923, and 6,000 of his supporters, were expelled at the end of 1928 and beginning of 1929. [1]

The expellees founded a new organisation, the Communist Party Opposition (KPO). In October 1929 its membership was claimed to be 5,100; three years later – in 1932 – Brandler reported that the membership was 3,500. [2]

In the first year of its existence the KPO had 60 to 70 local branches. In addition there were individual members in numerous localities who in the following years established new branches. In 1930 and 1931 the KPO had in addition 20-25 factory branches. [3]

KPO influence was significant, although very small compared with the KPD. In the local elections in 1930 the KPO stood candidates in 37 local authorities in Saxony, and collected a total vote equal to 14.1 percent of that achieved by the KPD. [4]

The KPO was quite well implanted in the proletariat. It controlled majorities on various trade union branch committees. This was the case, for example, in the metal union of Thuringia. It controlled the metal union committee in Stuttgart. At the union congress of the metal workers of Berlin the KPO had eight delegates, while the KPD was not represented at all. [5]

The KPO had an impressive number of newspapers. Besides the national political-theoretical organ, Gegen den Strom, it had another eight papers, mainly weeklies. From 1 January 1930, the KPO published a daily paper, Arbeiterpolitik. This appeared in three separate editions: one for Greater Berlin, another for Saxony-Thuringia, a third for the rest of Germany.

The KPO’s youth organisation, Kommunistische Jugend-Verband Deutschlands (Opposition), had some thousand members and published a monthly with a circulation of about 2,000. [6] Of course there was a political abyss between the Bulcharinist KPO and the Trotskyists. In international affairs Brandler was very far from Trotsky. He declared his solidarity with Stalin and Bukharin on the policies of the Comintern and the CPSU outside Germany. Brander opposed the latest, ultra-left zigzag of the Comintern; Trotsky attacked its entire post-Leninist record. Brandler criticised the policies of the KPD, but refrained from contradicting the Soviet leadership. In internal Soviet conflicts Brandler sided with Stalin, endorsing ‘Socialism in one country’, exonerating the bureaucratic regime as conforming to Russia’s national conditions, and regularly denouncing Trotskyism.

In 1936 the Brandler leadership justified the Zinoviev trial as an ‘act of legitimate defence against a counter-revolutionary plot’. In February 1937 the verdict of the trial of Radek and Piatakov was also justified – albeit hesitantly – with some criticism of the conduct of the trial. In a general statement the Moscow trials were justified as ‘a sign of the strength of the Soviet system ... that does not lead to disruption of the proletarian dictatorship as such when leading officials in almost all parts of the state apparatus are accused of sabotage, espionage, corruption and other crimes.’ [7]

Brandler however changed his tune with the trial of Bukharin. This trial was described as a ‘stage of wild frenzy’ of the ‘counter-revolutionary terror’ which showed ‘the growing decay of the Stalin regime’ – totally unlike the cynical justification of the trials of the previous year – which showed the ‘strength of the Soviet system’. [8]

Some eighteen years later Brandler justified the Soviet troops’ suppression of the Hungarian workers’ revolution of 1956: without the Soviet intervention Hungary would have left the Soviet camp. [9]

The Leninbund

THE DEFEAT of the October 1923 revolution in Germany, as we have seen, led Zinoviev to replace Brandler and Thalheimer with Ruth Fischer and Arkady Maslow.

Fischer and Maslow, the most extreme of the international Zinovievist faction, hunted down the least support for Trotskyism in the party. Their situation became complicated when, in the middle of 1925 Zinoviev broke with Stalin [10] and moved towards a bloc with Trotsky. In Byzantine fashion Zinoviev now distanced himself from his own adherents, Fischer, Maslow, Urbahns and Scholem. Stalin, who had pushed Zinoviev out of the Comintern leadership, went even further in attacking the Fischer and Maslow for their past. They were removed from the leadership of the KPD, accused of being Zinoviev’s agents (November 1925).

On 19 August 1926, the Central Committee of the KPD expelled Fischer and Maslow from the party. Two weeks later the two drafted a declaration of support for the Leningrad Opposition – the Zinoviev group which had allied with Trotsky in the United Opposition. While it mentioned Zinoviev, Kamenev and Krupskaya, the reference to Trotsky merely declared he had ‘rallied to Zinoviev’. This declaration under the slogan ‘Back to Lenin, to real, genuine, non-falsified Leninism’, received a great number of signatures of support. It was published on 11 September with 700 signatures, among them 50 well-known leading people, several members of the Central Committee, five deputies in the Reichstag, eight members of the Prussian Landtag, and a number of other party officials. [11]

The Central Committee took disciplinary action against the 700, demanding a loyalty declaration from each one. Most refused to sign and were expelled on 5 November. [12]

On 8-9 April 1928, the supporters of Fischer and Maslow held a conference in Berlin. The Leninbund was born. Among its founders were six former members of the Central Committee of the KPD and 11 MPs. On the face of it the Leninbund seemed quite a strong organisation well implanted in the proletariat. Its principal strongholds were in Berlin, where it had members in every district, in the region of Dortmund, especially in Mannheim, Bruchsal and Karlsruhe, in Cologne, Suhl in Thuringia, Halle and Magdeburg. At the founding conference it was reported that the Leninbund influenced some 80-100,000 Communist workers inside and outside the party. [13] This figure is no doubt exaggerated, though the fact that the Leninbund had a daily paper, the Suhl Volkswille, suggests it had an influence many times its membership. However, the Leninbund was built on sand. As we have seen, it was shaped as a Left opposition to the Right-wing Brandlerite leadership of 1923. Now, in 1928, with Stalin’s ‘Third Period’ and accusations of Social Democracy being Social Fascism, the Leninbund members were completely disoriented. After all, it was Zinoviev, the original patron of Fischer and Maslow, who was the author of the theory of Social Fascism. A whole number of Leninbund groups returned to the KPD. [14] The Leninbund disintegrated very quickly, especially after it decided to put candidates in the Reichstag elections of 1928. Suhl, the most important district of the Leninbund, split away and joined the SPD. The membership of the Leninbund, some 11,000 the previous year, went down to 1,000. [15] The haemorrhage of members continued. In 1932, on the eve of Hitler’s victory, its membership stood at some 500. [16]

When Trotsky first intervened in Germany, he expected to get some support from the Leninbund, but in reality he received little. It is interesting to note that of the 700 signatures to the foundation document of the Leninbund, only nine later became Trotskyists. [17] Zinoviev’s friends in Germany thus provided very unreliable allies.

The Leninbund, at one time á sizeable current with deep roots in the proletariat and representing an authentic ‘workers’ leftism’, was a serious obstacle in the path of the International Left Opposition. The Zinovievist current, which was basically soft, centrist, was both near and different to the Trotskyist current – a rival and a handicap to it.

A third obstacle for Trotskyism: the SAP

THE SOZIALISTISCHE Arbeiterpartei (SAP), which broke from the SPD at the end of 1931 was another obstacle. The SAP was a muddled, centrist, semi-Social Democratic organisation. Its founding programme made big concessions to pacifism – advocating the League of Nations, the international court of arbitration, etc. [18] Regarding the USSR it argued, in Otto Bauer’s footsteps, that with an improvement in economic conditions there would be a withering away of terror and the growth of democratisation. [19] In its statutes the SAP aimed at a loose federation. [20] Regarding relations with existing internationals, one of its leaders, Ernst Eckstein, declared that under no conditions would it join the Comintern; its task was to strengthen the left wing of the Second International. [21] In March 1932 the SAP gained an important addition of 1,000 members of the KPO, led by Paul Frölich and Jacob Walcher. [22]

The SAP was a fairly large organisation. Its leadership claimed a membership of 57,000 in February 1932; in fact the paid-up membership was at most 25,000. [23] In addition there was a youth organisation. At the end of 1932 its membership was 810,000. [24]

The SAP published quite a number of newspapers. Besides the national daily, SAZ (Sozialistische Arbeiterzeitung), a number of national weeklies – Die Fackel, Klassenkampf, SWZ (Sozialistische Wochenzeitung), Kampfsignal, and Volksrecht. There were in addition a number of local weeklies; Badisch-Pfälzische Arbeiter-Tribüne, Kurier für Vogtland und Erzgebirge, Mitteldeutsches Kampfsignal, Norddeutsches Kampfsignal, Rhein-Ruhr-Fackel, Saar-Fackel, Südwestdeutsche Arbeitertribüne, and Weser-Ems-Fackel. [25]

The SAP was a very heterogeneous organisation. Its majority, following Max Seydewitz and Kurt Rosenfeld, wanted to orientate the organisation towards the SPD, and argued for ‘radical reformism’. [26] A minority, led by Paul Frölich, Jacob Walcher and Fritz Sternberg, were under the influence of Trotsky. Another group among the leaders was soft on Stalin. Throughout 1932 the SAP was completely paralysed by factional strife. [27]

The factionalism and demoralisation of the SAP increased also as a result of its electoral failures. The SAP inherited three seats in the Prussian Landtag when it broke from the SPD. In the elections of 24 April 1932 to the Prussian Landtag it lost all these seats. The greater the Nazi menace, the nearer Hitler ‘s approach to power, the more workers thought it was foolish to support small organisations. The SAP’s vote thus continued to decline. [28]


Landtag elections
24 Apr. 1932

Reichstag elections
31 Jul .1932

Reichstag elections
6 Nov. 1932





Westfalen Süd
















The election results to the Landtag in Hessen were particularly revealing. In the elections of 15 November 1931 the SAP got 23,108 votes; on 19 June 1932 its vote went down to 11,689; in the Reichstag elections of 31 July 1932 this fell to 3,008, reaching 1,813 on 6 November. [29] Thus in one year the SAP lost more than 90 percent of its support. It was difficult for it to convince workers who supported the SPD or KPD that the SAP, while calling for unity, was not simply a party of splitters.

The KPO, the Leninbund and the SAP, were small compared to the SPD and KPD which in early 1932 had 1,008,953 and 287,180 members respectively. [30] Their youth movements were also significant: The SPD’s had 50,465 members, the KPD’s 60,000. [31] Nevertheless as immediate rivals on the left the KPO, Leninbund and SAP represented great hurdles for the German Trotskyists to overcome.

As we shall see, the German Trotskyist organisation never managed to have more than 600 members. All the three organisations – KPO, Leninbund and SAP – had daily papers. What did the Trotskyists have? For a time, from April 1930, they published a small fortnightly, Der Kommunist. But after a split with Kurt Landau (see below) they had to stop publishing any open journal. Instead they maintained contact between the members by means of a duplicated Information Bulletin. In July 1931 they started to publish a new magazine, Permanente Revolution. This appeared monthly until the end of 1931. From January 1932 it appeared fortnightly, and finally, from the end of July 1932, appeared as a weekly in a newspaper format (of only four pages). In all, 47 issues were published from July 1931 to February 1933. The number produced, which had doubled since it was first produced, was given in August 1932 as 5,000. [32]

Compare this puny publication with the output of KPD propaganda. In 1927 the KPD had 36 dailies [33] and the SPD had 188 dailies, reaching a total of 1,188,401 regular subscribers. [34]

A small cogwheel can turn a larger cogwheel, but not when the disproportions are astronomic: a cogwheel weighing a pound will not be able to turn a cogwheel weighing a ton. If this were tried the only result would be that the teeth of the small cogwheel would break.

All the three organisations we have described, the KPO, Leninbund and SAP advocated, as did the Trotskyists, the establishment of a united front of the KPD and SPD against the Nazis. The similarity of position of the three organisations with that of the Trotskyists on this crucial issue facing German workers made it very difficult indeed for the Trotskyists to pull workers towards them. If a similar song is sung by different people the one with the strongest voice will be heard.

The fact that the Brandlerites did not see the policy of the KPD as derived from the policy of the CPSU, that they supported Stalin’s policy both in the USSR and its foreign policy in China during its revolution (1925-27) or in Britain during 1926, would condemn Brandlerism to bankruptcy in the long run, leaving no inheritance. But in the short run, in Germany, it could not bring about a move away from Brandler to Trotsky on any scale. And time was short ... Hitler was knocking at the door.

The fact that the Leninbund, because of its basically Zinovievist nature, was vacillating and unstable, again led to its quick disintegration, but in the meantime it did act as an obstacle on the road of Trotskyism. And ... time was short.

The fact that the SAP, as a centrist organisation, vacillated between reform and revolution, led many of its members to slide back towards the SPD or to drift towards the KPD, while the party as a whole joined the Popular Front in the mid-thirties. Again this meant that in the historical scale of events, it proved itself to be bankrupt and sterile, but again it was an added obstacle in the path of building a strong, effective Trotskyist organisation in Germany.

However, the greatest obstacle was the resistance of the KPD itself to Trotskyist influence.

KPD immune to Trotskyism

WHEN TROTSKY wanted to use his organisation in Germany as a lever to move the KPD, as a weapon to influence its rank and file, he was impeded not only by the disproportionality between the two organisations but also by the qualitative features of the KPD that made it immune to Trotskyist influence.

First of all, the social composition of the KPD. As previously noted, many KPD members were unemployed. By the end of 1931 the figure was 78 percent, and in April 1932 reached 85 percent. [35] The composition of the KPD stood in sharp contrast to that of the SPD. This was made up, in 1930, of: workers, 59.5 percent; teachers, salaried employees and civil servants, 14.8 percent; free professions, 0.6 percent; housewives, 17.1 percent and pensioners, 4.6 percent. [36]

Being overwhelmingly unemployed, the Communists were largely distant from the Social Democratic workers employed in the factories, railways, etc. This facilitated the KPD leadership’s effort to prevent a united front between the two parties.

Unemployment conditioned Communists to accept ‘Third Period’ policies – ultra-leftism, ‘social fascism’, etc. – and militated against the success of a policy that relied on mass action and the exercise of economic pressure. The alternative was a resort to more and more individual violence.

The Communists also found themselves unable to maintain a stable unemployed movement, as the historian Eve Rosenhaft noted:

In the uncertain and erratic development of the unemployed movement it is possible to see a reflection of the ambiguous psychological cast of the unemployed themselves. It was in the nature of the situation of the unemployed that neither their allegiance nor even their volatility could be depended upon. Depending on the circumstances, being out of work for an extended period of time could result in passivity and resignation, just as easily as it could foster impatience and rebellion. [37]

The tactics of small-scale street fighting and attacks by small bands (‘squaddism’ as it is sometimes called) in which the KPD indulged fitted the bitterness, impatience, and social isolation of the unemployed.

In the late 1920s a number of paramilitary organisations arose: the most important of these were the Stahlhelm of the right-wing nationalists, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, the Nazi stormtroops), the Reichsbanner Schwarz-rot-gold of the SPD, and the Rote Frontkämpferbund (RFB – Red Front fighters of the KPD). The RFB acted as a weapon against the Nazis and self-defence against the SA. However, being based on the unemployed, it was highly unstable. In December 1930 its membership was some 95,000.

During the second half of 1931, however, the movement began to stagnate, and numbers continued to fall through 1932; at times fewer than one in five of the registered members were paid-up. The situation in Berlin-Brandenburg was particularly unsatisfactory; the number of registered Kampfbund members fell from between ten and twelve thousand in May 1931 to 5,000 in June of 1932. One Berlin local, with a total Party membership of 5,000, had no more than thirty-five detachments.

The Kampfbund also suffered, if anything to a greater extent than the Party, from a familiar complex of problems: high unemployment, unsatisfactory basis in the factories, and rapid fluctuation of membership. In December of 1931, Berlin-Brandenburg had only four Factory Detachments. [38]

Unable to carry mass action in industry, unable to carry out mass strikes on its own, the KPD naturally saw in individual terror an easy way out. This rose out of desperation.

In the view of the leadership, individual terror was the easy way out: it arose not from disappointment with methods tried and found wanting, but from despair of the possibility of success. It was thus distinct from the ideal in character and origins as in form. The absolute incompatibility of the two, so often asserted in principle, was very neatly exemplified by cases where a planned mass-action was wilfully disrupted by individual terrorists. Herbert Wehner reports an incident of 1932 ‘in the neighbourhood of the Stettin Station’: a carefully organised protest movement involving both Communists and Social Democrats broke up after a group of RFB men took it upon themselves to carry out a raid on the SA-tavern in question. [39]

Weakness in the field of mass action, especially industrial action, led the KPD to squaddism – and thus further weakened the party’s ability to carry mass action.

The KPD paramilitary organisation was involved in physical attacks on SA taverns. (Control of the tavern was very important because it constituted a centre for organising and controlling the locality).

The campaign against the SA-taverns, or barracks (Kasernen), as they were commonly known, began in principle in April of 1931. Die Rote Fahne of 23 April published a list of known SA quarters, giving addresses and telephone numbers and ending: ‘Self-defence is the right of all who are attacked.’ ... It was not until the end of August, however, that the Party began to call directly for action against the taverns.

The long campaign ended with the defeat of the KPD. The Nazis had the money to buy the tavern owners.

It was common knowledge within the labour movement that the SA’s ‘conquests’ during these months depended on direct approaches to individual landlords backed up with the promise of financial advantage – in Friedrichshain and Neukölln people talked about guaranteed sales of thirty barrels of beer a month – and as such the Nazi campaign underlined the desperate situation of the Communist rank and file. Not only were the Nazis fed and clothed by their leaders; they were able to buy the workers’ institutions out from under them. [40]

The campaign against the SA-taverns developed into a series of isolated raids, which came to be seen as more trouble than they were worth to the Party ... [41]

It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the wider consequences of the street-fighting, but we know that it ended in anger and disillusionment for some rank and file members before 1933, and it is possible that wider circles of the working class drew from it the lesson that the battle for the streets could not be won ... the functions of SA terror may be said to have been ... to draw the fighting energies of the militants away from the traditional foci of working-class action and onto the terrain on which the proletariat was at its weakest. [42]

The KPD faced a dilemma:

the conditions of political activity in Depression Berlin and the character of the Party itself and its auxiliary organizations militated against mass action and encouraged the development of an atmosphere of panic conspiracy ... At the end of November 1931 Paul Jahnke [Secretary and political leader of Neukölln KPD] told his colleagues: ‘In my opinion, mass terror is a sheer impossibility ... Fascism can only be held down by terror now, and if that fails, in the long run everything will be lost.’ [43]

This squaddist practice closed the minds of KPD members to the arguments of the Trotskyists and reinforced the theory of ‘Social Fascism’.

Frequently, as in Prussia, which contained two thirds of the German population, the police who protected the fascists in the street fights were backed by a Social Democratic administration. The idea of a single fascist front – Nazi–police state administration–SDP – thus appeared to be confirmed.

Another characteristic of the KPD membership was the extremely rapid turnover of members. Of the 180,000 dues-paying Communists at the end of 1930, only 20.5 percent had more than a year’s standing; 143,000 had entered the party during the year, but 95,000 had left it. [44]

The composition of the KPD delegate conference in the workplace cells of the Ruhr mines in 1932 is highly instructive. About three-quarters of all the delegates had been in the KPD for only a few months, or a little over a year. [45] The instability of the KPD membership stands in sharp contrast to the stability of the membership of the SPD. A 1930 SPD survey revealed that 21 percent of the members had been in the party more than fifteen years; 27 percent more than ten years; 53 percent more than five years. Thus a quarter of the 1930 membership had been paying dues during the entire Weimar period, a fifth since before the war. Only 8 percent were members of a single year’s standing. [46]

The theoretical level of the KPD members was very low miseducated by the Stalinist leadership, and being only a very short time in the party, it could not but be very weak intellectually. One clear expression of the members’ lack of interest in theory was the tiny circulation of the KPD theoretical monthly, Die Internationale. In 1929 only 1,200 copies of it were sold inside the party; the party membership was then 135,160. Even the daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, had quite a small circulation some 25,000. [47]

The character of the KPD’s membership – unemployed, with very little political experience, and of brief duration helped the KPD leadership not only to promote the theory of social fascism, but to isolate and beat any serious opposition. The ultra-left policy of the ‘Third Period’ fitted the psychological needs of these impatient young unemployed. It was much easier for the Stalinist leadership to manipulate the rootless mass of the members than it would have been if they were employed, experienced workers, schooled in the practice of trade union organisation in the workplace and educated in the party over a number of years.

German Trotskyist organisation in permanent crisis

PIERRE BROUÉ was right when, after studying the Trotsky archives in Harvard, he came to the conclusion that the ‘only real Trotskyists in Germany at that time [around 1927] were Soviet comrades in diplomatic exile’. [48] It was not that the Leninbund was unfriendly to Trotsky. Between 1927 and 1929 its press published articles and communications by Trotsky every week. Its paper, Die Fahne des Kommunismus, was at that time the only journal that offered Trotsky a platform. The Leninbund also distributed a significant number of Trotsky’s articles and pamphlets and those of the Russian Opposition. Again, the Leninbund, together with another small group – the Wedding opposition, were the only organisations in Germany that campaigned against Trotsky’s deportation to Alma Ata, and then his exile to Turkey.

After his exile, the Leninbund called a ‘conference for defence of the banned Bolsheviks’, which was held in Aix-la-Chappelle with the participation of German, French, Belgian and Dutch Opposition groups. The conference decided to create a Committee to aid Trotsky and his comrades. Its president was Hugo Urbahns. However, there were from the beginning disagreements between Urbahns and Trotsky: on the class nature of the USSR, on the question of splitting from the KPD and building a new Communist party, and on other issues. In the ensuing polemics between Trotsky and Urbahns, two members of the leadership of the Leninbund Anton Grylewicz and Joko (Josef Kohn) sided with Trotsky.

Trotsky asked Kurt Landau, the Austrian Trotskyist, to go to Berlin to, in his words, ‘feel the ground’ – to intervene in the Leninbund and to propagate the influence of Trotskyism in Germany.

Kurt Landau had been active in the Austrian Communist Party since the age of 18, becoming very quickly one of its leading members, a member of the Central Committee responsible for agitation and propaganda and editor of its central organ, Die Rote Fahne. He became a Trotskyist in 1925 and was one of the chief opponents of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Austrian Communist Party. In 1926 he was expelled from the party. He established his own group with a few tens of members around a journal Der neue Mahnruf. He came in touch with Trotsky after the latter’s exile from Russia. In mid-August 1929 Kurt Landau went to Berlin and settled there.

On 25 October 1929, the Leninbund paper, Die Fahne des Kommunismus, reported the formation of a Trotskyist faction in the Leninbund. At the same time the two Trotskyists, Anton Grylewicz and Joko, were removed from the leadership of the Leninbund. On 23 February 1930 the conference of the Leninbund excluded the Trotskyists altogether.

On 30 March 1930 a unification of all Trotskyists in Germany took place in Berlin. The United Left Opposition was founded. This conference was, however, a very sorry affair, with bitter squabbling that practically tore the organisation to pieces even before it was formed. An historian of the German Trotskyist movement, Annergret Schüle, tells of comrades accusing one another of ‘slanders and intrigues’, of ‘cliquishness’, of ‘factionalism’ .

Trotsky was very disheartened by the state of the German organisation. Some three months after the conference, on 21 June 1930, Trotsky wrote:

Recently in the German section we have had sharp disputes that ended in the withdrawal of Comrades Neumann, Joko, and Grylewicz from the leadership. This action, like a number of actions that preceded it, really has the character of a genuine literary and bureaucratic intrigue of the classical type. The comrades mentioned above gave no hint of the principled reasons for their withdrawal. All efforts that were made to correct their mistaken action came to naught. Naturally, these comrades will now set about finding ‘principled’ reasons for their action ...

... not only Marxist, revolutionary elements have come into the Opposition, for principled reasons, but also individualist, petty-bourgeois, and lumpen elements who cannot tolerate discipline and are incapable of carrying out collective work. One could list many examples. Moreover, given the fact that for a number of years the Opposition has led an exclusively literary existence, it has cultivated within its ranks closed circles and literary arrogance characterized by inattention of these elements to workers’ organizations. A continual state of opposition can and does breed conceit and grand airs, and also breeds people who always use the terms ‘masses’, ‘proletariat’, ‘masses’, but pay no attention to the individual representatives of the masses, even those in their own ranks, and do not try to draw them in and work with them on the basis of real party democracy. [49]

In a letter to all sections of the International Left Opposition dated 17 February 1931, Trotsky wrote about the state of the German Trotskyists:

We must not shut our eyes to the facts. We must openly say: many opposition groups and groupings represent a caricature of the official party. They possess all its vices, often in an exaggerated form, but not its virtues, which are conditioned by the numerical strength of the workers within them alone, if by nothing else ...

I have been convinced that fundamentals which appeared to me elementary for a proletarian revolutionist have found no echo among some of the leaders of the Opposition, who have developed a definite conservative psychology. It can be characterized in the following manner: extreme, often sickly sensitivity in relation to everything that concerns their own circle, and the greatest indifference in relation to everything that concerns the rest of the world ...

In the course of the last few years I have received from Saxony, Berlin and Hamburg a series of highly disturbing communications and documents, and also urgent demands that the International Opposition intervene in the German crisis. [50]

Trotsky suggested a number of measures to overcome the crisis in the German Left Opposition, including:

It is necessary to put a stop to all reprisals, expulsions, and removals in connection with the factional struggle in the German Opposition. Insofar as it is a question of purely individual cases, the questions must be examined on request, with the participation of representatives of the International Secretariat.

A special Control Commission, as authoritative as possible, must cooperate with the International Secretariat in examining the appeal made by the comrades (in Hamburg, etc.) who have already been expelled, and give its decision ...

In all cases where organizational conflicts and objections come to the fore, an examination must be referred to the International Secretariat, in cooperation with especially trustworthy and unprejudiced comrades from other sections. [51]

In a letter of 4 April 1931 to Oskar Seipold, a member of the leadership of the Trotskyist organisation in Germany, Trotsky stated that the ‘German Opposition was the worst caricature of the disloyal habits and treacherous methods of the bureaucratic apparatus.’ [52]

Trotsky did not cease complaining about the German Trotskyists even after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. They had failed to rise to the occasion. On 22 February 1933 Trotsky wrote to Jan Frankel:

The surprising thing is that the Germans themselves are moving least of all. It is difficult to understand what is the matter here: whether there is a general mood of depression and resignation in Germany, or whether our organization is totally lacking in initiative. I do not doubt that now, when our authority would be rising powerfully if our leadership were active and bold, that the size, at least, of Permanente could be significantly enlarged ... In Permanente there is not even a real appeal to all friends and sympathisers to now increase tenfold the newspaper sales, collection of money, agitation, and organizing ... what accounts for this catastrophic inertia: the generally depressed mood of the German proletariat or the specific conditions of our organisation? [53]

In June 1931 the German Trotskyist organisation split: Landau pulled 80 members out of a total membership of 230.

The official Left Opposition – i.e., those that did not go with Landau – had the support of groups in Bautzen (five members), Berlin (10 members), Bruchsal (45 members), Forst (five members), Goldap in East Prussia (five members), Hamborn (four members), Hamburg (five members), Heidelsheim (ten members), Königsberg (ten members), Leipzig, (50 members) and Magdeburg (five members) – 150 in total. [54] The United Left Opposition was hardly stronger than at its foundation. From now on the organisation grew, but far too late. From June 1932 to the beginning of 1933 the membership of the local groups quadrupled. Probably, at the end of 1932 it had about 600 members in 44 local groups. [55] The local groups were disproportionately weak in the big town centres. How puny those groups were is clear from the following table on the size of branches in June 1932 [56]:

No. of

No. of



(including Erfurt and Köln)



(including Breslau, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Stuttgart)



(Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Oranienburg, Bruchsal)

How could the Berlin branch of the Trotskyist organisation with its 50 members influence the KPD, which in November 1932 had 34,000 members in the Berlin-Brandenburg district alone? [57]

In two localities the Trotskyists did manage to establish a united front of workers’ organisations against the Nazis – in Bruchsal and Klingenthal. Trotsky was very enthusiastic about the importance of this experience. In Germany. What Next? published one year before Hitler’s accession to power, Trotsky wrote:

That which was accomplished by the local organizations in a provincial comer, in Bruchsal and Klingenthal, where the Communists together with the SAP and the trade unions, although boycotted by the upper crust of the reformist bureaucracy, have created the organization for defence – that, despite its modest scope, serves as a model for the whole country ... it is only necessary to spread throughout the country the experience of Bruchsal and Klingenthal and the entire outlook in Germany would be different. [58]

Unfortunately Bruchsal, in Baden, was a very small town. Its total population in 1970 was 27,100 (in the early ’thirties it was a little smaller). Klingenthal in Saxony had a population (in 1967) of 14,700.

In Bruchsal the Trotskyists were exceptionally strong, with 100 members, while the KPD was very weak indeed. In the local elections at the end of 1930, the Trotskyists in Bruchsal won 889 votes and nine seats on the council, the SPD five council seats, the KPD none. [59] In Bruchsal the Trotskyists managed to establish a ‘proletarian united front.’ [60] In December 1931 there was a report of an anti-fascist demonstration of 1,500 workers in Bruchsal. [61]

At the end of 1932 the German Trotskyist organisation faced a new and serious crisis. At this time it became clear that Adolf Senin and his brother using the alias Roman Well (later exposed as Stalinist agents), adopted a very conciliatory attitude toward Stalinism. Well was the leader of the relatively strong Leipzig branch of the United Left Opposition and Senin the leader in Saxony. They launched a faction fight that culminated in the publication of a false issue of Permanente Revolution. This appeared on 20 January 1933 – ten days before Hitler became Chancellor. It claimed the majority of the Left Opposition had broken politically and organisationally with Trotskyism. Trotsky’s perspectives for Germany and the Soviet Union were bankrupt, it said. His warnings of fascism and the threatening catastrophe, accompanied by sharp criticism of the KPD policies were groundless. The Stalinist press – the Berlin Rote Fahne, Imprekor and L’Humanité reported the ‘collapse of the German Trotskyist group’.

In the next issue of the authentic Permanente Revolution it was made clear that of the list of 127 ‘capitulators’ only 35 ever belonged to the United Left Opposition. [62] Still the split left a bitter after-taste.

The role of Stalinist plants in the Trotskyist movement

THUS STALINIST agents implanted in the Trotskyist movement did massive damage. Roman Well, leader of the Leipzig Trotskyists, was also circulation manager of Biulleten Oppozitsii in Germany. Sedov soon also came to rely on him for the circulation of the journal in Russia itself, and in the bordering countries, which was far more serious. [63]

Roman Well himself recommended another Stalinist plant, Jakob Frank, to Trotsky, to be co-opted into the national leadership of the German group. [64] So one Stalinist plant recommended another. Jakob Frank, visiting Trotsky in Prinkipo on 25 May 1929, immediately became active as Trotsky’s German secretary, as he knew Russian. Two years later the Viennese Stalinist paper Die Rote Fahne, published a statement from Jakob Frank and twelve other members of the Trotskyist movement in Austria, denouncing Trotsky. [65] Another GPU agent in the ranks of the German Trotskyists was the Lett, Valentin P. Olberg.

Other sections of the Trotskyist movement were also infiltrated by Stalinist agents. Thus M. Mill, who also wrote under the name of J. Obin, was chosen by Sedov as a member of the administrative secretariat of the International Left Opposition. Active in the French section, Mill played an important role in the faction fight that ended with Alfred Rosmer, the veteran revolutionary, leaving the International Left Opposition, and then with the split of Molinier from the International Left Opposition. When he was removed from his post in 1932 because of his personal intrigues, Mill came out openly as a Stalinist.

But by far the most important agent of Stalin in the Trotskyist movement was Marc Zborowski, who used the pseudonym Etienne. A member of the International Secretariat, he formed part of the little Russian language group around Sedov, which was responsible for publishing Biulleten Oppozitsii. He had a hand in the murder of Sedov.

These agents had ready access to high posts in the Trotskyist movement by virtue of their knowledge of the Russian language. As Trotsky explained in October 1932, after the removal of Mill:

To find a Russian Bolshevik-Leninist abroad, even for purely technical functions, is an extremely difficult task. This and only this explains the fact that Mill was able for a time to get into the Administrative Secretariat of the Left Opposition: there was a need for a person who knew Russian and was able to carry out secretarial duties. Mill had at one time been a member of the official party and in this sense could claim a certain personal confidence. [66]

The basic weakness of the Trotskyist movement explains why Stalinist agents managed to climb so rapidly to high positions in it, and also why they were able to do so much damage.

It is true that in the Bolshevik Party Roman Malinovsky, a police agent, was a member of the Central Committee and leader of the Bolshevik faction in the Tsarist Duma. But the damage he inflicted on the party was nothing compared to that brought about by Stalinist plants in the Trotskyist movement. Agent provocateurs are only effective if the situation lends itself to provocation.

The Bolshevik Party was much infiltrated by Okhrana agents prior to the revolution. At the beginning of 1910, after a number of well-calculated arrests, the provocateur Kukushkin became head of the Moscow district organization. ‘The ideal of the Okhrana is being realized,’ wrote an activist. ‘Secret agents are at the head of all the Moscow organizations.’ The situation in Petersburg was not much better. Not a single conference was held abroad with representatives of the Russian party that was not attended by at least one okhrana agent. In 1912, when the legal Bolshevik daily Pravda was founded in Petersburg, two police agents, Miron Chernomazov and Roman Malinovsky, were on the editorial staff, the former as an editor and chairman of the editorial board, the latter as contributing editor and treasurer. From Malinovsky the police obtained a complete list of people who contributed donations to the paper and a complete list of subscribers. However, the damage brought about by Malinovsky and other Okhrana agents was very limited. The party’s control over its Duma deputies was so strict that, even when the leadership of the Bolshevik group in the Duma fell into the hands of the police agent Roman Malinovsky, the party benefited from his activities in the Duma far more than the police. Lenin wrote many of the deputies’ speeches. Malinovsky proved himself an extremely useful Bolshevik agitator! [67]

Stalinist plants played a very important role in fanning the faction fights inside the Trotskyist movement. The amount of damage they did was great. Other accidental persons also inflicted damage on the movement.

Take the case of Erich Kernmayer, who caused the first break between Trotsky and Kurt Landau. In September 1930, Landau’s Trotskyist group in Austria, the Mahnruf group, accused Kernmayer, who left the group to join another Trotskyist group, of being a police spy. The International Secretariat sent Mill (the GPU agent) and Raymond Molinier to investigate. On their advice he was rehabilitated. Trotsky castigated the Landau group’s suspicion of Kernmayer as foolish and cynical, and said these were ‘features highly characteristic of half-Communist and quarter-Communist Bohemian circles’. [68] In 1933 Kernmayer joined the Nazis, and after the Anschluss wrote a number of openly Nazi books. [69]

Basic weaknesses of the Trotskyists in Germany

THE TRAGEDY of the German Trotskyists was not only that when they tried to get into action there were already many players in the field – (besides the First Division of KPD and SPD, there was also the Fourth Division of the KPO, Leninbund and SAP) – but that they never achieved the minimum critical mass required even to climb into the Fourth Division.

It was not just a question of numbers. Although, as we shall see, social composition in a small group is only one factor among many determining the potential of an organisation, nevertheless, the social composition of the Trotskyist groups was very poor. On 21 January 1930, Trotsky wrote:

In a number of countries ... side by side with the genuine revolutionaries, accidental elements have joined the party, i.e., those who are tired and disillusioned, or still worse, pretentious armchair communists who are unfit for any kind of serious revolutionary struggle and who by their entire conduct can only compromise the banner of the Opposition in the eyes of the workers. [70]

In an article entitled Problems of the German Situation written on 31 January 1931, Trotsky wrote:

In the European Opposition we have predominantly young comrades who joined the Opposition before they had the opportunity to participate seriously and for any length of time in the party and in mass struggles. In addition to that, the Opposition is developing under the conditions of a continuing revolutionary ebb that breeds sectarianism and ‘circle’ sentiments. [71]

Trotsky was very perturbed by the overwhelmingly petty bourgeois composition of the German section. Thus in a letter written on 6 March 1932 to Senin-Sobolevicius he remarked that the Trotskyist Opposition had failed to recruit in Germany even ‘ten native factory workers’ (and had won over only a few intellectuals and immigrants). [72]

A few months later, in November, when Trotsky was in Copenhagen to deliver a speech on the Russian revolution, he had a chance to meet with several European leaders of the Left Opposition including a number of Germans. He came to the conclusion that the German section had far more workers in it than his letter to Sobolevicius assumed. In a letter written on 16 December 1932, Trotsky stated:

The reports of the German comrades, as well as the composition of the delegation, have proven beyond a doubt that in the ranks of the German section there exists a serious cadre of working-class Communists who are adequately qualified politically and at the same time are connected with mass organizations. That is a very great achievement from which we must start and build further. In the first place, we must assure a composition of the leadership which is more proletarian and more bound up with the masses. [73]

There were without doubt a number of workers in the German section, as one can see from the memoirs of Oskar Hippe [74] and Georg Jungclas. [75]

Nevertheless the petty-bourgeois elements, isolated from the working class, weighed down the German section. As we have seen, the other workers’ parties in Germany, but also the KPO, the Leninbund and the SAP, were overwhelmingly proletarian in composition.

Trotsky as a writer had far greater appeal than the Trotskyist organisation. Thus, while at its height Permanente Revolution had a print order of 5,000, Trotsky’s pamphlets and books sold far more widely. Trotsky’s pamphlet, Against National Communism (September 1931) came out in three editions and sold 15,000 copies. The pamphlet that included two articles Will Fascism be Victorious? and How will we Beat National Socialism? came out in three editions and sold 35,000 copies; What Next came out in two editions and sold 15,000 copies. [76]

In conclusion

THE GERMAN Left Opposition, Trotsky argued, should carry out a united front policy with the KPD. On 30 September 1929 he wrote:

The Communist Left Opposition in Germany must carry out a united front policy in relation to the official party. Otherwise the Opposition will remain a sect and fall into decay. [77]

But how could 50 members of the Left Opposition in Berlin pressurise the KPD with its 34,000 members?

The success of the Left Opposition in establishing a united front in Bruchsal and Klingenthal could not even impinge on the consciousness of the KPD or SPD members and supporters in the big cities. The very existence of a small organisation calling for a united front seemed a contradiction in terms. The Left Opposition could not succeed in overcoming the aversion of members of mass parties to joining or following a small group. The mere existence of the KPO, Leninbund, SAP and Left Opposition increased the number of political organisations of the labour movement and contributed to its fragmentation.

As we have seen, the greater the threat of a Nazi victory, the less inclined were people to vote for ‘splinter parties’ like the KPO or SAP. This resentment of ‘splitters’ inevitably encompassed the Trotskyists. Furthermore, the permanent squabbling in the Left Opposition ranks, the paralysis due to the factionalism of its leaders and recurring splits, could only reinforce this impression and put off serious workers. Trotsky again and again moved from optimism, when he exaggerated the success of the Left Opposition in Germany, to deep pessimism, when he grasped not only its numerical weakness but also its qualitative failings.

First, a couple of quotations to illustrate the optimism: on 17 September 1930, Trotsky wrote a letter to the conference of the German Left Opposition: ‘Weak though we still are organizationally, we have nevertheless already become a serious factor in the internal life of the Communist Party’ . [78]

On 22 December 1931, in a letter to the national sections, Trotsky repeated:

Within the revolutionary ranks in Germany there is a Marxist opposition, which leans upon the experience of the preceding decade. This opposition is weak numerically, but in the march of events adds extraordinary strength to its voice. Under certain conditions a slight shock may bring down an avalanche. The critical shock of the Left Opposition can aid in bringing about a timely change in the politics of the proletarian vanguard. In this lies our task at present! [79]

In his book What Next? published at the beginning of 1932 Trotsky writes:

Numerically the Left Opposition in Germany is weak. But its political influence may prove decisive on the given, sharp, historical turn. As the switchman, by the timely turn of the switch, shifts a heavily laden train onto different tracks, so the small Opposition, by a strong and sure turn of the ideological switch, can compel the train of the German Communist Party, and the still heavier train of the German proletariat, to go on in a different direction. [80]

Sadly, history proved that this was a completely unrealistic perspective.

In Russia Trotsky stood out as a giant amongst his adherents, but at least he was surrounded by people who distinguished themselves in the revolution and civil war, people of independent mind and strong character. There were hardly any of this calibre among his associates outside Russia. The German Trotskyists, a little circle, small in number, with few openings for growth, of necessity turned in on themselves: internal discussion or dissension dominated the life of the sect, and made it impossible for the German Trotskyists to break out from their hermetic circle and connect with the masses. When one follows the interminable discussions, factional squabbles and splits among the Trotskyists in Germany, it reminds one of Lenin’s comment on similar squabbles between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. But the end results were different. A story often cited by Lenin illustrates why: seeing a man in the street squatting and gesticulating strongly, Leo Tolstoy decided that he was looking at a madman; on coming closer he was satisfied that the man was attending to necessary work – sharpening a knife on a stone. Alas, unlike the Bolshevik-Menshevik split which helped form a genuine revolutionary mass party, in the case of the German Trotskyists it was a case of a man sharpening nothing on nothing.

To understand the failure of the German Trotskyists to achieve any serious success in influencing the working class, in affecting events, or even in building a sizeable, serious, stable party rooted in the proletariat, one has to take into account a whole number of factors.

Each concrete event in history is determined not only by the fundamental economic and social factors. A multiplicity of secondary factors also play a role. For a revolutionary organisation not only the general economic and social situation are objective factors; not only the material world, but also the state of consciousness of the working class. These are very much affected by the role of the traditional mass parties. Even when the old leadership of the SPD and KPD revealed their complete bankruptcy, this could not easily become obvious to the mass of the workers. This required a significant alternative organisation in the class, known to the masses, and in which a significant number of workers had confidence, based on the experience of the past. A new leadership could not simply be built without taking into account the mass parties who had won a deep loyalty among workers in the process of awakening them to conscious life, organising them and training them.

One must also not overlook the strength of centrism – the KPO, SAP, etc. – and its rightward movement. This centrism cannot be explained unless one takes into account Moscow’s influence – enhanced by the prestige of October – and the impact of the many defeats culminating in the mass destruction brought on by the Nazis. Lastly, one should not overlook the subjective factor in its narrow meaning: the social composition, the experience, and the size of the Trotskyist organisation itself. Largely petty bourgeois in composition, isolated from the real working class, the German Trotskyists were by and large more dogmatic bookworms than real revolutionaries. If the pressure of the masses welds workers’ parties together, the isolation of the German Trotskvist organisation opened it to squabbling and splitting.

Because it did not achieve the minimum critical mass required to at least close the gap between it and the centrist organisations, the Left Opposition could not move to the second link in the chain of establishing influence in the working class: the workers in the KPD and SPD. What we have here is a vicious circle: smallness and isolation leads to further smallness and isolation.

There was a wide chasm between Trotsky’s ends and means. His strong grasp of the social and political forces wracking Germany in the early ‘thirties and the tasks facing the proletariat on the one hand, was not matched by resources on the ground – the tiny Trotskyist organisation. Once, while talking about certain of his disciples, Marx quoted the words of Heine: ‘I have sown dragons, and I have harvested fleas.’ This tragically fits what happened to Trotskyism in Germany.

The tragedy of Trotsky in the case of Germany 1930-33, was in a way different from his tragedy in the USSR in the years 1928-33. In the latter case Trotsky’s own analysis and his prognoses, however brilliant, were found by the test of history to be wanting. In the case of Germany his analysis stood the test of time perfectly. Alas, that in itself was not enough to build a significant revolutionary organisation, or what comes to the same thing – to have a real effect on the course of events.


1. K.H. Tjaden, Struktur und Funktion der KPD Opposition (KPO), Meisenheim am Glan 1964, p.100.

2. H. Drechsler, Die Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD), Hanover 1983, p.150.

3. Tjaden, p.114.

4. Ibid., p.232.

5. Ibid., pp.226-7.

6. Ibid., p.144.

7. Ibid., p.336.

8. Ibid., p.337.

9. Ibid., p.349.

10. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.3, pp.130-5.

11. Zimmermann, pp.30-1.

12. H. Weber, Die Wandlung des Deutschen Kommunismus, Frankfurt 1969, p.164.

13. Zimmermann, p.102.

14. Ibid., p.115.

15. Ibid., p.177.

16. Ibid., p.230.

17. A. Schüle, Trotzkismus in Deutschland bis 1933, Köln 1989, p.56.

18. Drechsler, p.109.

19. Ibid., p.111.

20. Ibid., p.117.

21. Ibid..

22. Tjaden, p.293.

23. Drechsler, p.160.

24. Ibid., p.164.

25. Ibid., pp.169-71.

26. Ibid., p.250.

27. Ibid., pp.288-310.

28. Ibid., p.282.

29. Ibid..

30. Figures for the SPD are from 1 January and for the KPD March 1932, Rosenhaft, p.45.

31. Ibid..

32. W. Alles, Zur Politik und Geschichte der deutschen Trotskisten ab 1930, Mannheim 1978, p.75.

33. Weber, p.36.

34. R.N. Hunt, German Social Democracy. 1918-1933, London 1964, p.50.

35. Weber, Introduction to O.K. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik, p.64.

36. Hunt, p.103.

37. Rosenhaft, p.51.

38. Ibid., p.95.

39. Ibid., p.112.

40. Ibid., p.116.

41. Ibid., p.127.

42. Ibid., p.213.

43. Ibid., p.127.

44. Hunt, p.102..

45. Zimmermann, p.284.

46. Hunt, p.101.

47. Weber, pp.316, 363.

48. Schüle, p.56.

49. WLT, 1930, pp.293-4.

50. WLT, 1930-31, pp.147, 152-3.

51. Ibid., pp.169-70.

52. Quoted in Schüle, p.74.

53. WLT, 1929-33, p.190.

54. Alles, p.73.

55. Ibid., p.77.

56. Schüle, p.84.

57. Weber, p.370.

58. Trotsky, The struggle against Fascism in Germany, p.240.

59. H. Schafranek, Das Kurze Leben des Kurt Landau, Vienna 1988, p.282.

60. Permanente Revolution, Oct.-Nov. 1931.

61. Ibid., Dec. 1931.

62. Ibid., January-February 1933.

63. J. van Heijenoort, With Trotsky in Exile, From Prinkipo to Coyoacán, Cambridge, Mass. 1978, p.97.

64. Ibid., p.95.

65. Schafranek, pp.136-145.

66. WLT, 1932, p.237.

67. T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.1, London 1986, pp.242, 324.

68. Zimmermann, p.237.

69. Schafranek, pp.252-7.

70. WLT, 1930, pp.77-8.

71. WLT, 1930-31, p.140.

72. Letter to Senin-Sobolevicius, 6 March 1932, Trotsky Archives, Closed Section, Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, p.206.

73. WLT, 1932-33, pp.32-33.

74. O. Hippe, ... und unsere Fahn’ ist rot, Hamburg 1979.

75. G. Jungclas, Aus der Geschichte der deutschen Sektion der IV Internationale, Hamburg 1972.

76. Schüle, p.86.

77. WLT, 1929, p.337.

78. WLT, 1930-31, p.26.

79. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.193.

80. Ibid., p.252.

Last updated on 5 August 2009